Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Stephen Nottingham: Screening DNA

In 2000, agricultural biologist and writer Stephen Nottingham published a book about genetic engineering technology in the movies, Screening DNA: Exploring the Cinema-Genetics Interface. While print copies aren't available in the US*, he has kindly provided the full text on his web site. With chapters on cloning, resurrecting dinosaurs, designer babies, alien DNA, scientist biopics he takes a look a wide range of films with genetic themes. He concludes that, while biotechnology is often portrayed negatively (and inaccurately) in the movies, he believes that they have little influence on the politics surrounding use of genetic engineering, cloning and other technology.

The power of genetic engineers to radically modify organisms is usually exaggerated, while misconceptions about scientists' ability to regenerate life from DNA abound. The benefits of genetic engineering are often acknowledged, particularly advances toward curing diseases such as Alzheimer's. (55) However, whatever the benefits, the risks always tend to outweigh them, because narrative conventions require a crisis. The potential threats posed by genetically modified ("alien") organisms are consistently exaggerated. Misconceptions about cloning are everywhere in the movies. Clones have often been portrayed as exact instant copies of adults, whereas clones arise from embryos. In the movies, clones are derived from originals, who have precedence, unlike real clones who are equals. Clones are also either erroneously seen as inferior copies, or as the child rather than twin of a cell donor. No cloning movie can be said to further advance the public understanding of science. Meanwhile, human genetic enhancement is represented as a highly predictive science, which overemphasises the role of genes in determining complex human behaviours. Movies therefore reiterate a key, but politically-loaded, assumption of the genetic determinism. Artificially assisted reproduction technology, from artificial insemination, through IVF, ICSI, PGD, to the uses of human cell cloning, continues to be branded with the label "unnatural practice" in the movies. The nature of the scientific method and the motives of scientists, corporations and governments are typically misconstrued. To cap it all, genes have been given a mythic or spiritual aura, a genetic essentialism that conveys the impression that DNA is somehow in god's realm and not something for man to meddle with. Despite all this though, movies have tended to reflect society's anxiety about biotechnology, rather than creating that anxiety.

In the long-run, it will not be movies that stop technological progress by influencing public attitudes, but well-informed considerations of the benefits and risks of the technology. An important debate is now taking place, with the messages of multinational corporations, politicians, environment and consumer groups, and the media reaching a large proportion of the population. If human cloning, transgenic crops, or any other application of biotechnology is stopped, then it will not have been movies that were responsible, but a concerned citizenry worried about the type of world their children will grow up in. Important technological developments that affect everyone within a democracy, for example, those that affect the food supply, should not proceed without a popular consensus approving them. It is up to politicians, scientists and corporate biotechnologists to put the case for each application of biotechnology to the public. If the public do not buy it, then so be it.

I have to disagree with his final conclusion. The debate surrounding the use of biotechnology is driven not only by "concerned citizenry" but by politicians, and religious and corporate groups that have their own agendas. There is a ton of misinformation (and outright lies) promoted by lobbyists for those groups, and, not surprisingly, members of the public who are largely informed on scientific topics by popular culture are likely to have opinions about biotechnology that are based on emotional appeals and its sensationalist depiction in the movies than on careful analysis of the facts. I hate to think that our public policy is being set by the special interest groups that are best able to spin an entertaining tale.

In addition to Screening DNA, Nottingham's web site includes his "Biologist at the Cinema" series of essays and reviews that look at some popular science fiction films from a biologist's perspective:
* You can order a hard-cover copy of Screening DNA from
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arvind mishra said...

Invaluable info,

Jimmy said...

Very informative article.